President Saakashvili's party leads in Georgia local elections

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Candidates from President Mikhail Saakashvili's party dominated local elections in Georgia, according to preliminary results Monday in the first ballot since the war with Russia two years ago.

The most closely watched contest is for mayor of the capital Tbilisi, the first time the post has been determined in a direct election.

The Central Elections Commission said incumbent Gigi Ugulava, a Saakashvili ally, had won the crucial race after a preliminary count at all the capital's voting precincts.

Nationwide, Saakashvili's party was getting nearly 70 percent of the vote, the commission said based on results from about 4 percent of the polling stations.

Saakashvili weathered weeks of demonstrations last spring demanding his resignation.

The brief 2008 war saw Russia drive deep into Georgian territory and two separate territories break entirely with Georgia. The war damaged Saakashvili's reputation, which already was tarnished by complaints that he was showing an authoritarian streak.

But the opposition lost luster when last spring's protests fizzled out inconclusively and opposition factions have not been able to coalesce into a unified front.

The local councils are constituted of both party-list and individual mandate seats and it is likely to be several days before a comprehensive picture emerges of how much power Saakashvili's United Democratic Movement will be able to wield.

The election observers' mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said elections "marked evident progress toward meeting international standards, but significant shortcomings remain to be addressed."

A statement from the mission cited systemic problems in some regions of the country including ballot-box stuffing. It also criticized many television stations for bias in campaign coverage, although it said the country's public broadcasting company have balanced coverage.

Several opposition parties expressed doubt about observers' objectivity. "International organizations always express the interests of the government," Tbilisi mayoral candidate Zviad Dzidziguri said.